In a mirror darkly: how do plants perceive their social environment?
The major biotic stress that plants experience during their life-cycle is their interaction with neighbouring plants, but these complex interactions remain a somewhat neglected area of research. Plants can detect each other through both their shoot and root systems, and growth responses triggered by plant ‘social’ environments have major implications for individual plant productivity. Recent studies have demonstrated that plants can apparently distinguish the roots of close kin, distant kin and non-kin, and undergo differential root growth responses depending on the identity of their neighbours, which could be a major selective advantage for plant species. There is good evidence that at least some aspects of underground neighbour detection involve the perception of low-molecular weight compounds exuded into the soil, such as jasmonic acid. However, it is unlikely that such simple and generic molecules allow plants to distinguish their neighbours along a continuum of genetic relatedness. Thus, overall, the mechanisms by which plants detect and distinguish neighbouring root systems are poorly characterised. One hypothesis to explain plant kin-recognition is that plants have a peptide-based ‘root self-perception’ system that allows them to distinguish neighbours along a continuum of genetic relatedness, by assessing how much neighbouring plants resemble themselves. This project will use a combination of molecular genetics, computational biology and advanced bioimaging approaches to test this hypothesis, and to more generally explore the mechanisms by which plants can detect and respond to each other through their root systems.
Enhanced four-year postgraduate studentships starting in October 2020, will once again be awarded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. The nominated supervisor will select a candidate who will then compete at interview, with Sainsbury Undergraduate students, for one of up to four Sainsbury PhD Studentships. Interviews will be held in London on 6th March 2020. It would be expected that the studentship holder spend six months during their 3rd or 4th year at another university/institute to gain additional experience. Please note that students cannot apply to their home institution.